History / Peter Mangold

Striking Out Over Europe

Channel punching, 50 years on.

Striking Out Over Europe

David Cameron is expected to give a major speech in the near future on British membership of the EU. The timing has already proved difficult, with Downing Street initially scheduling the event for January 22, not realising it coincided with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Elysee treaty. One date Cameron has done well to avoid is today, for exactly fifty years ago, on 14 January 1963, General de Gaulle held a news conference in Paris opposing Britain’s application to join the EEC.

De Gaulle’s news conferences were always grand occasions, attended by French ministers, the diplomatic corps and the press, providing the French President with a world audience. He had spent the last three weeks preparing for this particular event, with his diary cleared of non-essential engagements. However, before carrying out this diplomatic coup, de Gaulle hadn’t bothered to consult any of his five EEC partners.

England, the General declared, was simply too different. Insular, maritime and linked to the world by trade, France’s old rival pursued essentially industrial and commercial activities, with very little by way of agriculture, which, although he did not say it, was of vital interest to the French. ‘She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits. In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation that are England’s differ profoundly from that of the continentals.’ Although six months earlier the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had told him that the England of Kipling was dead, the French President was unconvinced. Britain could only join the EEC if it were willing to do so ‘without restriction, without reserve and in preference to anything else’, veiled references to the Commonwealth and ‘special relationship’ with Washington.  The so-called Entente Cordiale had reached a post-war nadir.

De Gaulle had been hostile to the British application from the outset, although he did not originally feel in a strong enough position to do more than draw out the very complicated technical negotiations between Britain and the Six which took place in Brussels.  British membership, as he at one point privately noted, would ‘change everything.’ The original EEC was a very small club, easily dominated by France. Britain would challenge that domination. Its entry would also begin a process of enlargement, which would dilute French power, and expose the Community to something which the General abhorred – namely American influence.  De Gaulle and Macmillan had had very different experiences of dealing with the Americans during the Second World War. Macmillan, who had an American mother, had quickly established good working relationships with the Americans, and was a pioneer of that ‘special relationship’, which he assiduously cultivated when he became Prime Minister in 1957. De Gaulle, by contrast, had fallen foul of Roosevelt, who made little secret of his view that France was no longer a Great Power. It was an insult the General did not forget.

At the same time de Gaulle had a problem, to which the British might conceivably have provided the solution. Central to his foreign policy in the early 1960s was a vision of a Europe which would provide a counterweight to both the United States and the Soviet Union, and  become a major independent actor – independence was an obsession with the General – on the international stage. For this, however, Europe needed its own nuclear defence. The British nuclear deterrent was already in operation, whereas France had only conducted its first nuclear test in 1960. If some kind of nuclear deal could be struck, then the General might be willing to accept British membership of the EEC as a quid pro quo.

For Macmillan this provided a potential opportunity, indeed his only real means of tempting the obstinate General to accept an otherwise unattractive deal.  But the nuclear card was something of an illusion. According to the terms of Anglo-American nuclear cooperation, the British could not pass on any technology gained from the US without American approval, and the Americans were firmly opposed to the French nuclear programme. Thus while Macmillan dangled the prospect of nuclear cooperation in front of the General, he was unable to make any specific commitments since there was very little in the British nuclear arsenal which did not have some American component. Besides, Macmillan had no intention of allowing the General to make him abandon Britain’s privileged connection with the world’s most powerful state in favour of an ill-defined concept of Europe, or what in military and technological terms would have been a second-rate alliance with France. Forced to choose between Europe and the US, Macmillan, like Churchill, naturally turned to the US. Macmillan knew that his hand was weak, and that while he and the General had formed a kind of friendship during the war, the latter was not a man to be swayed by sentiment. But he had not expected the brutality of the French veto. For de Gaulle, however, the dramatic  public rejection of the British bid, the actual veto came two weeks later in Brussels, was a declaration of French power and independence, aimed at much as the United States as the UK.

As today, when American officials publicly declare their concern for continued British membership of the EU, Washington then strongly supported the British bid. But a reading of the press conference text, also suggests a certain evening of historical scores. It was a long time since French power had seemed about to surpass that of its historic enemy. Besides, the General clearly enjoyed the occasion. ‘Strange times, gentlemen’, he afterwards told the French Council of Ministers, ‘when one cannot say, without provoking I do not know what kind of hullaballoo, that England is an island and America is not Europe.’

It’s in some ways ironical, that the first British bid to join an organisation designed to end the long history of European power politics, should have foundered over one of the continents’ oldest rivalries. But old habits die hard, as the General well knew. Macmillan did seek leadership of Europe, though he never defined what he wanted to do with this. And the differences between Britain and its potential European partners ran deep, as the current discussion half a century later of a possible British exit underscores. The General had been right on one other point. Enlargement did indeed dilute French influence. De Gaulle was the magician of post-war French grandeur, and 1963 was the high point of his act. In the end, however, like Macmillan he was conjuring with illusions. ■

Britain and the Defeated FrenchPeter Mangold is a journalist, author and a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is a former member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Research Department and the BBC World Service. His books include The Almost Impossible Ally and Britain and the Defeated French.

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